Possessed to Skate

Skateboarding has been a central part of my life since I was 13 years old when I went with my parents to Sears and bought a “Fingerprint” deck fitted with day-glo wheels on heavy, stiff steel axles. It was an ungainly board, cheaply made to stock the shelves of mainstream retailers hoping to capitalize on the resurgent popularity of skateboarding in the mid-80s. Since my parents had fronted me the money for the deck, I wasn’t allowed to ride it till I paid them back—a sort of coat closet lay-away system intended to instill a capacity to suppress desire until it could be unleashed with a debt paid in full. Unable to resist the call of the streets however, I would sneak the board out of the closet and practice pushing on it in the driveway any time my parents weren’t around, careful to wipe down the wheels, like a burglar removing fingerprints, before nervously putting it back. After making the last payment on my parents’ convenient installment plan, I was out pushing, turning, and carving every day on the nearest side-street. In the evenings I began to fill my sketchbooks with fanciful images of skaters jousting one another with bats and chains amid industrial desolation, suitably adorned in apocalyptic fashion replete with mohawks, eye-liner, and spiked shoulder-pads. Skateboarding overtook my imagination and had become a fantastic body practice, transforming my sense of self through risk and speed as I simultaneously transformed the ordinary streets of a New Jersey town into zones of excitement, pleasure and danger. I felt skateboarding literally changing the ground beneath me, and discovered this otherworldly sensation described by the thrash band, Suicidal Tendencies, in their 1987 song, “Possessed to Skate”: Doesn't understand why you'd wanna walk, Ain't got time to sit and talk, Used to be just like you and me, Now he's an outcast of society, Beware! He's possessed to skate!

At the end of my first summer with a skateboard, my family and I traveled to Florida to visit my grandmother. One afternoon, driving to the supermarket with my grandmother, I spotted a battered, garishly spray-painted old school bus parked at the far edge of the parking lot, a disconcerting feature amid the careful landscaping and groomed citizens of Cocoa Beach. The bus, I realized, was the local skate shop. Thrilled and frightened at the same time—the weird bus seemed too uncannily familiar from my apocalyptic skate drawings—I climbed the steps slowly to see the institutional interior of the school bus utterly transformed into a space as much a shrine to skateboarding as a tentative commercial enterprise. Skateboard parts were arranged religiously on long, narrow wooden tables. Decks with strange and macabre graphics rested against the windows. For the first time I saw that boards could be assembled and repaired by the rider, rather than bought complete right off assembly lines. An older man, with a bandana tied wide and low across his forehead, dark sunglasses on and tattoos blacking his arms, leaned towards me from a lawn chair set up in the dim rear of the bus, just in front of the emergency exit. “Hey, yo, you need something?” Hesitantly, I tried to forestall any suspicion about my awed, uncertain attitude by explaining I’d only been skating a little while and that I was just here visiting my grandmother. In short, I wasn’t a real skater and I’d ended up inside this apparition of skateboard occult by accident. “Cool. Did you bring your stick?” the man asked warmly and I stared back, completely confused. Seeing my incomprehension, the man nearly howled, “Your board, man, your board!”

“Yeah, yeah, I did!” I blurted out immediately, my voice tripping over itself, relieved and happy to suddenly be allowed, through a fragment of slang, into this skater’s world. “Well, you should grab a mag, something to do when it rains, you know?” He gestured towards several small stacks of magazines. I picked up one that proclaimed “SKATEboarding” repeatedly down its cover, supplemented by “Transworld” in smaller type. “Yeah, that’s a good one, man. That’ll get you stoked to ride.” I descended from the bus out into the blistering asphalt of the parking lot, holding the August, 1987 issue of Transworld Skateboarding tightly. I felt like I’d finally made contact with an elusive tribe, a tribe with which I believed I shared some deep kinesthetic kinship.

Twenty-three years later, that copy of Transworld rests next to me as I write, its pages worn, its cover carefully taped back together. The cover is mostly taken up by the title, creating a powerful graphic pattern, followed by a small text block detailing the contents. Among the five feature articles, one resonates with meaning I never imagined as I stood outside that battered bus in a Florida parking lot. “Japan.”

when the skin opens up.

The other day I finished reading Natsuo Kirino's bleak novel about a Japanese H.S. student who is on the run after killing his mother and subsequently befriends a group of four girls after stealing one of their cell phones. Entitled "Real World," Kirino is clearly attempting to imagine a world inhabited by young people in urban Japan that has become frighteningly incoherent through fragmentation of the identity through consumption, intensive aspirational studying, and strained family and peer relationships. One of the high school girls, Terauchi, finally kills herself, feeling herself estranged in a fundamental way from society, unable to "survive" by pretending to meet the expectations of those around her. "In the reality of everyday occurrences I've had to submit to people in order not to lose them," she writes in a letter to her friend before jumping from the roof of a neighboring apartment building. She ultimately makes herself "real" by becoming something that can't be "undone" in her own philosophical logic, a permanent disappearance. The contradictory resolution is exactly where we are left after the boy's, nicknamed Worm, initial attempt to somehow attain the real and manage it's demands by murdering his superficial, deluded mother. The "real world" becomes something irreconcilable with the fantastic multiplicity the kids' lives contain.

A girl I worked closely with for two years while doing research habitually created new names for herself with which she would establish new online identities: shopping profiles on popular fashion and furnishing websites, email addresses, and user names for media aggregation sites like YouTube. Part fantasy evasion, part calculated identity protection, this girl inhabited a realm in which the "real" was defined by its very instability and porosity with her imagination. Her strategy is hardly unfamiliar. The concluding voice of Toshiko, one of the circle of friends, in Kirino's "Real World," describes her intention to not use a fake name anymore when she goes to sing karaoke. She looks down at her real name penned formally by her dead friend on her final letter, beginning to cry, confronted with two claims to the real: the physical erasure of her friend, and the social fact of herself as daughter and friend signified by her birth name.

Is her grief made less volatile by asserting her social identity against the "fictional" one she chose for herself as screen against the overworked student she was in the "real world," feverishly preparing for college entrance exams late into the night at a crowded, competitive cram school? The universe that contains and produces Kirino's young characters is one without possibility of change, or escape. Toshiko's only means to get out is through temporary possession of a persona that is never able to fully possess her, so she finally decides to refuse its frail, temporary sanctuary. Worm, on the other hand, chose the transformation that cannot be "undone"--murdering his mother--and so permanently alters the "real" with its familial pressures and falsehoods.

The novel reminds me of the bodies subjugated to the shifting geography of social realities. The characters rarely share the same immediate physical space with their friends. Most of their interactions take place through cellphone exchanges. Parents occasionally intrude, but are repulsed. Classmates are hurried past, and the crowds and lone strangers of western Tokyo are ignored and actively made to disappear.

The story leaves me empty, pondering our own futures and what we claim to be our temporal inheritance.


broken trucks

I'm currently trying to finish a chapter of my dissertation that's specifically about the skaters I rode with back in Tokyo. I'm contemplating the ideas of breakage, the failures of traditional social networks to hold things together in the face of economic crises that has intensified. Contemplating social breakdown turns me towards material breakdown--specifically, broken skateboard trucks with snapped kingpins.


Lady J Does Disney

Lady J's performance at Lounge D, a drag show presented at Disneyland--a perfect symbiosis of effusive imitation, high drama, and intense attention to glittery detail.


Suspended Heart

This is a rough cut of Tomoko knitting a Valentine's Day installation for Belberry, a high-end Belgian jam boutique in Roppongi Mid-Town. The installation was conceived as a performance, with Tomoko's partner Ian improvising on guitar and loop pedals for two 20 minute sets. While Tomoko knitted a good portion of the heart prior to the event, this video shows her working rapidly to construct the entire piece and finally assemble it before the growing crowd of Sunday consumers wandering the expensive and richly-appointed underground shopping plazas. I'll repost this once I've compressed a better quality version and added some final title cards, but peep this for now.


Delicious Kikokushijo Academy

One of my research sites is Kikokushijo Academy (K.A.), a juku (cram school) specifically designed for children who have lived outside of Japan for an extended period--an experience which often jeopardizes their chances at passing school entrance exams upon returning to Japan. While most of the students are Japanese, the school also offers a place for a number of young people who are bi-racial and attend Japanese public schools, though they may use English at home with one parent. The school is a unique, vibrant place where a range of young people from across Tokyo study together under an international and racially diverse faculty. Over the past year, I've grown very close to the 11 year-old students in my Saturday morning class. Together we decided to make a short video to introduce and explain the school to other kids interested in attending K.A. I helped the class write a script and Ken Oka and Kouta Oyama took on the task of developing storyboards and shooting directions. Over the summer, squeezing filming activities into our weekly class time, we shot the piece and I edited it in several stages, bringing rough cuts to the kids for their comments and approval. I intended the project to be collaborative, though time constraints meant that we couldn't devote ourselves to it as we would have liked. This short video has none of the conceptual depth of the work I did with photographer Wendy Ewald over the years, or the intensity of the photographs made by the refugee Karen teenagers in Thailand with whom I did From Journey to Dream. The video does reflect a collaborative relationship however, as I used devices the kids chose, such as speeded up footage which the kids found familiar from its common appearance in Japanese television news pieces. Though the piece was basic and uncomplicated in its intent, Ken and Kouta lead the film confidently, making it far more revealing and intimate than one might expect. Their happiness, wit, intelligence, and eagerness animate this video. More than this, their friendship has been a great joy in my life.



shoumouhin(in): tokyo skateboarders: consumable goods/expendable bodies

This is a short paper presented at the conference, Youth and Imaginative Labor: East Asia and beyond, held in Tokyo on July 21-22, 2007. I'm primarily interested in a series of large, black and white ads that Nike SB placed in strategic spots around Shibuya and Harajuku, zones that have been increasingly hostile to actual skateboarders. In the absence of skaters, Nike is able to draw on the authenticity skaters seem to represent. This is an authenticity furthered by the fact they are unwelcome in public space, especially in places of hyper-consumption like Shibuya. Relegated to skateparks or late night forays into forbidden sites, the skaters engage in a practice that is dangerous and destructive to both their equipment and themselves. It is exactly this "failure"--the damage they suffer--that makes them "real", in a way that traditional sports find antithetical. So while the shoes and boards get consumed in the process of skating, so too the skaters themselves are "consumed" by Nike's advertising. Additionally, the skaters, many of whom work dead-end low-wage jobs, appear as "expendable" labor within neoliberal Japan. Under neoliberal logics which fix blame on individual failings, they are held responsible by newspaper columnists and government officials for their own "failures" to secure a steady job and thereby ensure a valid (recognizable) position within society. The young men I'm researching don't make sense to normal social and economic structures: they are floating labor outside the dominant systems of control exercised through the workplace, and they use their excess energy to skateboard, hardly a suitable recreation for Japan's youthful future. At the same time, they provide the authenticating practice, the evidence, of an "outside" to normative society and its logic of public space and this "outside" or non-place grounds the fantasy of bodily rapture that Nike uses to push product.

This paper is dense and I'm trying to open up other questions about phenomenology, bodily experience, identities and self-understandings produced in intense practices, practices that signify a dedication but show no coherent or expected results or pleasures. Is there ecstasy? Is there a kind of possession? Is there a feeling of sociality? How does all this intersect with the fantasies produced in consumer capitalism, as in the dense areas of Shibuya or Harajuku?

Skate and destroy.